Raya and the Last Dragon represents a significant step forward in diversifying Disney’s princess brand in more ways than one. Viewers will find themselves whisked away into a far-off land almost more reminiscent of fantasy story-telling than Disney’s family films. It’s a conscious choice to give viewers a film which is wholly unique among Disney Princess films, and which is likely to contain many new favorite characters, and relationships.
Into the fantasy land of Disney
The best part of this movie is Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya. She’s a well-fleshed out character, with a defined personality and an extremely gratifying arc. Every time she’s on screen she’s engrossing and cool. For those who grew up and didn’t aspire to the prim and proper lives of classic Disney Princesses or even the modern, but fairytale-esque protagonists in Disney’s newer films, Raya is likely to be the first princess they want to be like. It’s truly a depiction which is only comparable to superheroes and sci-fi/fantasy leads like Luke Skywalker.
Outside of the changes in typical princess formula though, she also has the most well-defined and complex relationships throughout Raya and the Last Dragon. Her rivalry with the film’s antagonist Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan, is unlike anything seen from a Disney animated film before and it works exceedingly well. Every time the two are on screen together, it’s the most electric moments of the film. Raya’s relationships with her father, voiced by Daniel Day Kim, and with Awkwafina’s Sisu are rewarding, in that they both help define and progress Raya along her character arc. It’s this character arc too, which builds to a drama filled and emotional conclusion, that defines the film.
Coming into Raya and the Last Dragon, viewers might expect Sisu to be somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu, as they’re both dragon sidekicks from an Asian-culture inspired Disney Princess film, however, Sisu carries so much more of the story-telling weight in comparison to Mushu. There are pivot points in the story which swing on the story, and performance of Sisu. So while Awkwafina is absolutely hilarious, and brings joy to the film that can balance out the films more dramatic moments, it’s actually her ability to deliver genuine emotional connection which the film is most reliant on.
Outside of Raya, Sisu and Namaari, Raya and the Last Dragon has some smaller side characters which viewers will get to know, and they’re typical Disney fare. They’re inoffensive and serve a larger purpose, but one might wonder if their overly comedic natures drag the tone away from the more mature issues it’s seeking to deal with.
It’s really with the world Kumandra which Raya and the Last Dragon falters. It’s clear towards the end that right alongside Raya’s arce the filmmakers wanted the film’s world to have an arc which developed alongside hers. The problem is that this isn’t often defined in significant ways. The film’s themes of trust are laid out from even the first line of the film’s trailer, but while the consequences of not trusting are laid out and explored in a pervasive way with Raya as a character, especially towards the end of the film, they aren’t with Kumandra.
It’s only in some small moments which Raya and the Last Dragon really touches on its possibilities, such as when Raya’s dad, or Namaari’s mom speak on how other people perceive them in relation to power and how that influences their decisions. This political maneuvering, and the fleshing out of Kumandra’s various lands in a more substantive way would have laid the groundwork for a compelling arc, but instead they’re often hollow archetypes used to propel the film and Raya forward.
It also can take Raya and the Last Dragon a while to develop, even Raya’s issues with trust much more than saying, “you can’t trust anyone,” over and over again. It’s satisfying and well done when the film gets there, but it’s maybe an hour into the film before it truly does, a delay which undercuts the dramatic weight of a big moment in the film.
It’s between this thematically crafted fantasy world, and the class Disney Princess formula which the film’s tone is pulled tightly between. It isn’t necessarily tonally inconsistent. It doesn’t not work. But like a shirt recently shrunk in the wash, it might struggle at times to keep it all together.
Conversely, Raya and the Last Dragon shows not signs of struggle in its presentation. Whether in the beautiful world design, the lovingly crafter, and lived in environments, or the strong adventure-hero character designs, the film is a piece of visual poetry. Each different land is visually distinct from the rest, bringing its own dynamic and vibe. Most often, everything has been cleverly put together in a way to cause our protagonists trouble, or allow for exciting interactions and it always succeeds.
The characters too are detailed with exceptional nuance; provide with small character details which make them visually distinct and charming. Each both seamlessly standing out with their own visual identity, and yet drifting into the world behind them as if naturally at home. Raya and Naraami specifically work as designed foils, two princesses, separated by the world they live in and the missions they choose. It’s all laid out in the clean-cut militaristic style of Naraami’s clothing and hair, in comparison to Raya’s drifter inspired outfit and long, simply style hair.
It’s these two again who are often the focus of Raya and the Last Dragon’s single best element: the action. Unlike in any other Disney Princess film, action and action heroism is a central part of this film. The fight scenes themselves are developed to the extent they’d look at home in a highly choreographed martial arts film, something which is emblematic of Disney’s commitment to diversifying their princess brand. Several times throughout the film Raya and Naraami come to blows, and those are the scenes filled with the most tension, and the most thematic consequence in the whole film. It’s something wholly new for a princess movie and they pull it off with aplomb.
Raya and the Last Dragon is aspiring to be more than its predecessors while bringing along all the things previously mastered by the Disney Princess. In some small ways it falters, and in much larger ways it absolutely thrives in this new direction. Raya as a character will stand a head above other Disney Princesses and it doesn’t take much to see why.
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